This morning, a reader wrote in to tip us to today's Luann comic strip, which she felt was indicative of the strip's tendency to "sexualize its teenage characters to an ick-inducing level." But is Luann really all that bad?
I must admit that Luann has never been a comic that I thought too much about: my awareness of the strip springs mostly from Josh Fruhlinger's commentary over at The Comics Curmudgeon, a site dedicated to analyzing the funny pages, often with hilarious results. Though reading Fruhlinger's site, I knew that Luann has had a few slightly questionable plotlines kicking around over the past few years. However, in the interest of fairness, I decided to spend a few hours in the Luann archives (yes, there are Luann archives) to see what the strip was really all about.
We should start with the basics: the strip was started in 1985 by Greg Evans, who claims that his inspiration for Luann's world came from his own teenage daughter, who is now approximately 30 years old. In a 2004 interview with the Washington Post, Evans admitted that he had to look to new sources for his strip's material, after his children grew up and left the home, which led him to seek inspiration "by watching the WB, reading teen magazines, being observant at the mall." This, in part, would explain why the world of Luann is so steeped in teenage stereotypes and hypersexed scenes.
The standard teen characters are all in play: Luann, the main character, is a slightly dorky blonde who feels that no one understands her. She is perhaps the most sympathetic character; as much as I hate to admit it, I laughed at many of her doofy scenes and saw myself—and many of my friends at age 15—in her dumb exploits. She wants a car! Her dad says no. She wants to date the hot guy! Only the dork notices her. She writes poetry about how nothing makes sense. She reads beauty magazines and can't seem to figure out what they are trying to tell her. It's all standard teen fare, yes, but there's a reason why standard teen fare continues to pop up in movies and on television and comic strips: there's a tiny bit of truth to it.
However, there are many problematic elements in Luann: the "dumb girl," Tiffany, (who, by the way, once went by Sheraton St. Clair, an obvious rip on Paris Hilton) is not only stupid, but slutty as well. Because that's what pretty girls in high school are for, right? To be dumb, shallow, and easy? In the world of Luann, yes. Tiffany spends most of her time in the strip talking about money, boys, or the combination of the two, and is drawn as manipulative and stupid. She also allows herself to be exploited in various ways, for popularity's sake, because she just loves the attention from the boys. There was one particularly disturbing storyline that took place earlier this year, wherein Tiffany agrees to put on her bikini and sit in the dunk tank in order to raise money for a trip to Washington, D.C. Of course, this is all done in the name of sisterhood, to help "feisty sidekick" Delta make her way to D.C. with the rest of the group (Delta lost out on a ticket during a random lottery), which supposedly make its it OK.
The boys, however, have this reaction:
When this charming idea doesn't pan out, the girls decide to raise money by pimping Luann out to a boy willing to pay $950 for a date:
I mean, geez Luann, don't you know that being a real friend means dating someone you feel uncomfortable with? Really.
Beyond all this, there are other elements in Luann that are, as our reader noted, "ick-inducing." As Fruhlinger writes, "Here's what drives me batty about this strip's treatment of romantic relationships: everything's all presented to us as if its something that's supposed to make us all hot and bothered, and yet it's not erotically charged at all, both because of the need to stay within the strict bounds of newspaper strip acceptable content rules and because of the extreme hamhandedness of it all. The fact that it all reinforces the whole "Women are mysterious and manipulative and men are doomed to be trapped forever in their sexual thrall" thing just adds some extra ick." He's right, of course: the strip is laden with eye-rolling innuendo and the relationships are all seemingly plucked from a universe where every girl wants to sleep with every guy, and vice versa. This, I think, is where Evans' WB-watching has landed him in a bit of trouble.
Today's comic showcases Luann and her friend Bernice (who had an insane plotline involving a boss named Ann Eiffel, who, being a woman in power, was also the pseudo-predatory lesbian of the Luann universe. I'm not making this up. It's like Passions, people.) who is constantly keeping Luann in check with her "honest" view of things. Luann has been asked to appear at ComicCon, in costume, and Bernice feels it's the "friendly" thing to do to tell her to, you know, change everything about her body:
Sorry, Luann! Only cheerleaders get to take their clothes off and be rewarded for it, and your "real" friends are there to tell you to feel bad about yourself. Charming!
In fairness, there are certain Luann strips that are quite touching and sweet: Luann often finds herself confused and a bit flustered at the world around her, which is true for many people, regardless of gender, at that age. Luann's mother is also a fairly strong character, and her parents relationship seems loving and equal and manages to sidestep many (not all) of the dumb husband/whip smart wife (or vice versa) cliches of many family strips.
Yet many of the younger female characters in the strip seem to exist solely for the enjoyment of the horny male characters, and even the female characters who do step out of that box a bit find themselves clinging to boys for a sense of identity or self-worth. It's very Edward Cullen-esque. For every moment that rings true in Luann, there are 5 moments that seem like they should be extras on a Cruel Intentions 2 dvd.
Perhaps the lesson here is that at a certain point, one loses touch with one's audience; Evans creates a fictional teenage world based on other fictional teenage worlds: the movies, the magazines, the mall. If Luann really wants to be the strip that represents what its like to deal with being a teenage girl in today's world, perhaps Evans should stop looking to the glossy stereotypes created by other adults and start remembering the days when his daughter was in the house: the styles and the scenes may have changed, but the heart of the story stays the same.